The Compelling Community challenges human approaches to building church community with biblical principles and offers practical advice on how to go about facilitating this community God’s way. As authors Mark Dever and Jamie Dunlop explain, the community we aspire to and our belief on how to get there will affect our preaching, prayer, evangelism, welcome ministry, discipleship, ministry structure, church discipline, church planting, and more.
The book is organized systematically into four parts. Part I establishes God’s vision for a supernatural church community and explains why it is essential for both effective evangelism (John 13:35) and discipleship (2 Tim 2:2; Eph 4:15-16). Part II offers practical suggestions on how to foster this community and Part III explains how to protect the community. Part IV explains how this supernatural community works to evangelize and plant churches.
Part I is perhaps the most important section because it calibrates our compass to what we should aim for in church community. The authors define local church community as “a togetherness and commitment we experience that transcends all natural bonds—because of our commonality in Jesus Christ” (13). This church community is the fullness of God on earth (Eph 1:23) and a visible witness to the wisdom of God (Eph 3:10).
Church community should be both broad and deep. Church members, regardless of background, are all united in the same Spirit (Eph 2:18) and now share a deep family bond (Eph 2:19). The authors offer correctives of our natural tendencies to avoid breadth and depth:
- Breadth: rather than confine ourselves to naturally similar people (e.g. same life stage, ethnicity), every church member should have diverse relationships in the body
- Depth: rather than come to church as a consumer (“what’s in it for me”), newcomers should be eager to make formal commitment through church membership; this formal commitment catalyzes informal commitment to obey the “one another” commands in Scripture.
Breadth may be the more controversial of the two. It’s common practice for churches to organize ministry around common affinities or needs and for church members to be drawn to people similar to themselves, perhaps finding it easier to go “deep” this way. But breadth means that our community crosses all “dividing walls,” whether they be age, economics, politics, or social ability or cultural background (74). While not denying that “God uses our sociological affinities” (27), and the potential benefit of “newly married Bible studies” (21), the authors would like us to recognize the cost when these natural affinities characterize our community.
The temptation to use human tools to facilitate community stems from impatience or lack of faith, and often produces inferior results. Even unbelievers love those who love them back (Matt 5:46), so this type of love doesn’t display God’s wisdom. Christ’s followers forgive one another and sacrifice their preferences in love (1 John 4:19-20), even for those who share little in common but Christ. This kind of community life is powered by the gospel. When we use God’s power for God’s work, it is effective, and He receives the praise (2 Cor 10:4). The authors do not say relationships can “never share anything in common but Christ” (21), but they do advocate a community built on Christ, and for “many relationships that exist only because of the gospel” (22). As God has made Jew and Gentile into one body, tearing down the hostility (Eph 2:14-16), so He calls the church today.
It may seem difficult to create the right community, but we don’t need to. Community has in fact been established by God already (Eph 2:11-13). Our responsibility is to nurture rather than stifle it. Parts II-IV mobilize our aspiration for community with specific applications and illustrations of how this will look.
A brief illustration of some of the ideas and surprising insights:
- Preaching – Teaching is not the job of the pastors alone. Church members have a responsibility to teach one another so that they may grow into the right kind of community (Eph 4:11-16). Pastors should equip the congregation to study Scripture in order to fulfill this duty.
- Prayer – God also uses prayer to shape community. The book of Acts shows the centrality of prayer in the church. Corporate prayer models prayer for individuals in the congregation, and it is a chance to teach biblical priorities in prayer.
- Culture – The New Testament commands to care for one another in the faith (Rom 12:13-16; Heb 3:12-13, 10:24-25) are fulfilled primarily through informal relationships between members, not programs. We should have a spiritually intentional culture of discipling and hospitality, inviting people into our lives. Leaders do their part by modeling this.
- Ministry Structure – A full ministry calendar can appear fruitful but actually crowd out good relationships. So can a packed order of service that allows no time for spontaneous interactions. Also, leaders should be facilitators and let church members come up with their own ideas and encourage them to implement those ideas for the benefit of others.
- Unity – Church leaders should pay attention to discontentment or disagreement, which threaten community (Acts 6:1-7). Each member is responsible to maintain unity (Eph 4:3).
- Church Discipline – This protects a community from sin. Each believer has the responsibility to speak the truth in love, from an attitude of serving others rather than self. Legalism comes from self-righteousness; fear to confront sin from self-preservation.
- Evangelism – When Paul shared the gospel, he also shared his life (1 Thess 2:8). By evangelizing in groups and inviting unbelievers into our lives to meet other Christians, we showcase God’s supernatural community to the world (Deut 4:6-7; John 13:35). The church is a powerful witness for the gospel (Acts 2:42-47; Eph 3:10).
This brief, 200-page book covers many facets of community, yet delivers a significant number of insights in a well-organized and straightforward manner. The authors write primarily for church leaders to better lead and cultivate the right community (especially in those chapters on how and when to plant a new church by splitting off a portion of the congregation). Nevertheless, the book is accessible and helpful for church members as well. While leaders shape the direction of the church, community flows from the ground up. Much of the work to cultivate and live out community is done by individual members. The responsibility rests upon each member to play their role in teaching, praying, protecting unity, speaking the truth in love, evangelizing, and cultivating spiritually intentional relationships to present others mature in Christ (Col 1:28-29).